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Charles R. Smith, Jr. — an SBBT interview

Because I'm heading off on a writing date first thing on Thursday, I'm posting this a bit early. This is part of the Thursday Summer Blog Blast Tour, and the schedule at the bottom is designed to work accordingly.

Charles R. Smith, Jr., is a modern-day Renaissance man. By which I mean that he is a well-rounded individual, and not a throwback to times long past. Charles is a photographer, a basketball player, an award-winning poet, and a novelist, as well as being a husband and father of three. His award-winning poetry book, Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali was a favorite of mine in 2007. It won a Coretta Scott King honor as well as a Norman Sugarman best biography honor. His most recent book is The Mighty Twelve: Superheroes of Greek Myth, a recent release from Little, Brown, and his first YA novel, Chameleon, is due out this fall.

In addition to the books I've just talked about, Charles has an entire series of board books for and about babies (Hyperion's Motown series), and other releases, many of which are about basketball (two of my favorites were Rim Shots and Hoop Kings).

1. Your early work for kids and teens involved photography, poetry and stories about basketball, and the remarkable collection Rim Shots: basketball pix, rolls, and rhythms. Among those items (basketball, poetry, writing, and photography), can you pick a first love? Has that altered over time?

Early on basketball was something easy to write about because it was something I enjoyed doing for fun and something I had done for so long. I started writing stories when I was very young, about 2nd grade but didn’t pick up a camera until 11th grade. The three came together because as an artist you focus on things you enjoy and since I enjoyed basketball so much it was easy to photograph and write about. Even though I still love basketball, the topics I now cover in my books simply reflect my variety of interests; things I was always interested in but didn’t get around to writing about since I had focused so much on basketball earlier on.


2. Rim Shots includes a list poem entitled "Excuses, Excuses". Here's an excerpt:

"I didn't wear my right headband."
"I'm not playing well because my shoes hurt."
"My game is a little off because my shorts are too tight."
"My shoes are too old."
"I'm allergic to sweat."
"My shot isn't falling because my shirt keeps getting in the way."
"I can't dribble with my left hand because my watch gets in the way."
"I keep missing because this rim doesn't even have a net."
"I can't make a layup because I'm not wearing my right shoes."
"If I run too fast, I'll catch a cold."
"I can't guard him because he smells."


Of the excuses listed in Rim Shots to justify why a particular game was off, which of them (if any) have you personally used?

I try not to use any excuses but some of the courts I’ve played up bring up the “I keep missing because this rim doesn’t have a net.” I like to use the net to target my shot and alotttttttt of street court rims have nothing.

3. In Hoop Kings, you wrote 12 poems about 12 different contemporary NBA stars, along with detailed poem notes at the end explaining why you used some of the terms you did in the poems, and why (in some cases), you chose a particular poetic form for some of the poems. To my ear, many of the poems in that collection (and in your later work) have a jazzy, syncopated feel to them, derived in part from frequent use of internal rhyme as well as end-rhyme, and from your use of alliteration. I'd love to ask this question more artfully, but I'm afraid all I can come up with is "where did that come from"?

Basically, I tried to tailor each poem’s style to each player’s game. For somebody like Tim Duncan, his game is based on fundamentals so his poem is written in a basic fundamental style. For somebody like Tracy McGrady, his poem moves fast the way he does on the court. I always try to challenge myself on every poem I do and the challenge was to match the style and game of each player.

KF: In the "Inspirations" section of Rim Shots, Charles explained that he has a long-time love of basketball, African-American history and culture (referencing Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin), poetry (ranging from contemporary poets and writers like Ntozake Shange and Paul Beatty to African storytelling traditions, including stories featuring Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox), and music - especially jazz and the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. Elsewhere, Charles has mentioned a fondness for rap music as well. All of these influences are evident in his writing as it has evolved over the past decade or so.

4. Your book, released at the end of last year, Twelve Rounds to Glory, is (to my way of thinking, anyway) a masterful biography of Muhammad Ali and an excellent display of poetic mastery as well. With respect to the biographic side of it, can you talk a bit about your research process and organization? With respect to the poems, did you always conceive of the work as twelve poems (one per round of a regulation match), or did that come later?

The original concept for the book was 12 chapters written in verse to reflect a boxing match. I already had the title in my head, so that was good because sometimes that doesn’t come until all is said and done. As far as research goes, any project that I’m doing, fiction, non-fiction or poetry, I try to immerse myself in the world of what I’m writing about. In this day and age of so much technology I can really dig in deep to learn more. Once I had the concept, I just started looking for every piece of research material that I could get my hands on. This included not only books and bios, but DVDs of his fights and television specials that featured or mentioned him. I’m meticulous with the facts I present, so I checked everything against multiple sources and I was amazed to find some books had such basic things wrong as his birthday. I made a point of checking everything but also finding multiple takes on one story so I wasn’t relying on one person’s account.

How did you decide which events to showcase and which to downplay? Was it a tough call to include the poems that included some of the information that, while honest, doesn't exactly lionize Ali?

The frustrating thing that turned out to be a blessing in disguise was the fact that a lot of the info on him was scattered in various books; some books focused on just his fights, some focused on his politics, some focused on his battles with particular boxers such as Frazier, so much so that I said, “I wish there was just one book that had everything.” That’s when a light bulb went off and I said, I’ll do that book. To that end, I felt I needed to show him as a man with vulnerability, hubris and dignity that would reflect a whole person not just a caricature. My editor helped in that regard because she didn’t want a sanitized version of his life and when I read somewhere that he wanted people to know his whole story, not just the highlights, that’s when I knew I had to do his wishes justice by showing every part of him.



5. Your most recent poetry collection was Mighty Twelve: Superheroes of Greek Myth, illustrated by P. Craig Russell (of Sandman fame, as any Gaiman fan knows), in which you provide profiles for 12 different Greek gods, analogizing them to superheroes. Where did the idea come from? Did you conceive of it getting a comic/graphic novel sort of treatment from the start?

The idea from the beginning was to do a book that treated the Greek Gods and Goddesses as superheroes, so to that end, I wanted a comic book artist to do the artwork. With so many books out there about the Gods and Goddesses, I knew that would help it stand out, but also reflect what the poems talked about. The idea came from my love of comic books as a teen and my interest in Greek mythology.

6. In September, you have your first YA novel coming out: Chameleon, from Candlewick Press, an urban teen coming-of-age story. You've written other stories in the past - what led you to the novel?

The novel was just the outgrowth of knowing I had at least one in me (I have a bunch more in me though also) and wanting to do a marathon instead of a sprint (the poems). For me, it was fairly easy to write because there are parts of my life in it. It isn’t autobiographical, but the main character, Shawn, and I have some things in common. It’s a straight ahead novel, but my experience in writing poetry helped me focus on individual words and creating clear pictures and snappy dialogue. Some of my other editors asked if it was a hard transition to write a novel, but I think that since the style of poetry that I write is meant to be spoken aloud and uses some storytelling, it was easy for me. If I only wrote about, say, abstract poetry, that was meant to be read and not spoken, I think it would have been tougher.

7. What's next? Right now I’m working on a biography of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. He was the foreruner to Ali and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I have other things I’m beginning research on including other novels and such, but right now Jack Johnson has my full attention.

8. Speed round:
Cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate

Coffee or tea? Tea. Green. Except for when I have double espresso.

Cats or dogs? Dogs.

Favorite color? Purple.

Favorite snack food? Candy, particularly Hot Tamales and all flavors of Skittles.

Favorite ice cream? Anything with caramel (but no nuts).

Water or soda? Water.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? MF DOOM instrumentals.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Enter the Dragon. “Man, you come straight out of a comic book.”- Jim Kelly


Other stops on the Summer Blog Blast Tour today:

Elisha Cooper at Chasing Ray
Dar Williams at Fuse Number 8
Jennifer Bradbury at Bildungsroman
E. Lockhart at The YA YA YAs
Mary Hooper at Miss Erin
Mary Pearson at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy




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Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
May. 22nd, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
TadMack says: :)
What a GREAT interview, and thanks for the introduction to a new (to me) poet and author. Truly a renaissance man.

I'm excited about the exposure mythology is getting nowadays, but a little cranky, too. Where were these guys when I was a kid? A great concept -- graphic art styling and speak-aloud poetry. Nice.
kellyrfineman
May. 22nd, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says: :)
Like all things, interest in Greek mythology seems to run in cycles. I probably should've asked Charles whether or not Rick Riordan's Lightning Thief series was a motivational factor, although I rather suspect not. It's probably another synergy/Zeitgeist kind of thing.

You can listen to Charles read a number of his poems over at his website.
(Anonymous)
May. 22nd, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)
Now, he *is* multi-faceted, isn't he? I can't wait to read The Mighty 12. It's in my TBR pile.

Thanks for the well-done (as always) interview.
Jules, 7-Imp
kellyrfineman
May. 22nd, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
I did say "Renaissance man", did I not?
rusalkatrix
May. 22nd, 2008 09:58 pm (UTC)
Mighty Twelve looks awesome!
kellyrfineman
May. 22nd, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC)
You can see an outline of Athena at P. Craig Russell's site if you scroll down.
rusalkatrix
May. 23rd, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the link!
(Deleted comment)
kellyrfineman
May. 22nd, 2008 11:32 pm (UTC)
A post on how to prepare for and conduct interviews is an excellent suggestion. Will do.

I can't write today because my paper is too wrinkly.
dianemdavis
May. 23rd, 2008 01:08 am (UTC)
I love, love , love this man. I've been trying to get the school to hire him for three years now. I had a great workshop with him, in which I was first introduced to his work. I'm been hooked ever since and recommend him to everyone I can.
kellyrfineman
May. 23rd, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
A workshop?! Lucky girl! I've only read some of his books and exchanged emails. I'd love to hear him talk about his process more (particularly his use of alliteration and internal rhyme, and whether that's completely conscious or partially innate!)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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